A $200 million appropriation to provide insulation and other energy-saving help to the homes of low-income families may go largely unused this fiscal year, apparently because of administrative problems and a shortage of qualified labor.
Although state administrators interviewed said they probably won't be able to spend much of the money in the next year, however, Mary Bell, the director of the Dpeartment of Energy program, maintains that it is now running smoothly.
She said three-fourths of the appropriation would be used by next January. DOE officials have no estimate of how much of the money has been spent thus far.
Created under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1976, the program is designed to conserve energy and cushion low-income people from the effects of sharply rising fuel costs. Under the program's income guidelines, an urban family of four making less than $8,375 per year would be eligible for insulation, caulking and other energy-saving improvements.
The legislation setting up the Department of Energy program requires that volunteers or Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) workers install the "weatherization" materials. DOE can't use the program money to hire laborers.
Many states have been unable to take much advantage of the federal funds because they cannot get enough qualified CETA workers, a number of local program directors said in interviews. In several instances, insulation materials bought by the states are sitting in warehouses awaiting installation, a DOE official said.
The fiscal 1979 appropriation would weatherize about 320,000 units. The residents of approximatley 14 million units nationwide meet the program's income stipulations, DOE officials noted.
Maxine L. Savitz, DOEs deputy assistant secretary for conservation and solar applications, said that only a little over half of the 1977--78 national appropriation of $91 million was spent on weatherization.
The District, which has had enough money over a two-year period to weatherize about 17,070 units, has only worked on 572, officials said.
Like other jurisdictions, Maryland, Virginia and the District have also had their spending rates slowed by problems with CETA labor, their officials said.
From 1977 to fiscal year 1979, Washington has been allocated more than $1 million for weatherization but it has spent only 20 percent of those funds, according to DOE regional administrator Joseph L. DiBiase.
Patsy Harden, coordinator of the weatherization program for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, and Virginia's acting assistant director of weatherization, Danny L. Chisom, said the program was particularly difficult to use in urban areas. Owners' signatures are required before work can begin and many buildings housing low-income tenants have either been abandoned by their owners or are held by absentee landlords.
Weatherization work in Northern Virginia has been hampered by a lack of CETA workers there, Chisom said, because unskilled laborers can generally get jobs in the construction industry.
DOE rules also forbid agencies from weatherizing "common sreas" in buildings unless all the tenants fit the income guidelines. The mixture of tenants common in many Washington apartments prevents using the program to insulate roofs, said Lillian Durham, head of the community services division of the United Planning Organization, the District agency charged with administering the program.
All of the federal funds are sent to states, which in turn offer grants to community action agencies. District housing officials are administering public housing weatherization while UPO handles requests from homeowners and tenants.
Durham admitted that the program had gotten off to a slow start in the city, but said the pace of work has increased in recent months.
Under the program, Washington has weatherized multifamily dwellings, rowhouses and single-family houses as well as public housing. Durham said. District officials did not know how many units had been covered.
Theodore E. Brown Jr., deputy director of Maryland's Office of Community Services, said that the state an employ CETA workers for a maximum of 18 months but, he said, it takes six to 12 months to train weatherization workers.
Further, many of Maryland's CETA laborers "definitely were not quality workers," Brown said.
Mary Bell, DOE's weatherization director, conceded that the program has been hampered by changes in its regulations, fraud or mismanagement in some of the community agencies carrying out the work, and the states' tardiness in submitting their applications for the funds.
Bell said the states have not been able to document the existence of a labor shortgage. DOE regional administrators have reported that their areas are adequately manning projects.
A White House task force studying energy conservation is now discussing ways to speed up DOE's weatherization efforts. President Carter called for an expanded insulation program to aid low-income persons in his recent Kansas City address.
The White House task force, which is expected to reach some decisions shortly, is focusing on the program's labor provisions. A lack of coordination between DOE and the Department of Labor, which administers the CETA program, may account for some of the local difficulties, a White House source speculated.
Rep. A. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) recently introduced legislation that would allow DOE to spend up to $700 per unit to hire workers when sufficient CETA or volunteer labor is not available. In a letter to his colleagues, Moffett said it was time to "get equipment out of warehouses around the country and into homes."
Terming DOE's administration of the weatherization program "a ridiculous form of impoundment," Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill called Wednesday on the Hill for DOE to waive the CETA requirement when the workers aren't available. O'Neill spoke for a New England coalition of weatherization directors in a press conference here.
Bell said last week that such a change would be impossible under the present law because the program's exemption from the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the government to pay prevailing wages for federally assisted construction, was dependent on its use of volunteer or CETA laborers.
Nearly every state program administrator interviewed last week said that the DOE effort has been severly slowed by a lack of manpower.